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Blair: If Britain Votes No to Europe, We'll Just Have Another Referendum Until They Vote Yes

Financial Times | April 22 2004

Tony Blair came close to acknowledging on Wednesday that a Labour government would hold a second referendum on the new European constitution if there were a victory for the No camp in a plebiscite next year.

At prime minister's question time, Mr Blair was asked by Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, if Labour would veto the constitution or renegotiate it if the No camp won.

Mr Blair replied: "We will be in exactly the same position as, for example, Ireland after its rejection for the first time round of the Nice treaty, which means if we were in government we would sit down obviously and have to discuss the way forward with other European countries.

"That is what Ireland did after the rejection of the Nice treaty," he said. "That is what would happen if we were in government."

In a subsequent exchange of letters, Mr Howard seized on Mr Blair's comparison to the Irish No result. He said the clear implication was that, like Ireland, the Blair government would seek to renegotiate the treaty and hold a second referendum in the way the Irish republic had done.

"In other words," said Mr Howard, "if the British people did not vote the way you wanted, you would make them vote again until they did. You underestimate the British people."

The Conservatives said the prime minister's reference to the Irish referendum suggested Mr Blair's sudden pledge to hold a plebiscite on the constitution had been ill-thought through.

The Tories noted that, in his statement to the Commons yesterday, Mr Blair had said the referendum would be a "once-and-for-all" opportunity to define Britain's role in Europe, implying there could be no subsequent negotiation or referendum over the constitution.

There was some good news for Mr Blair when Kenneth Clarke, the former Conservative chancellor and the leading pro-European in the Tory party, threw his weight behind the nascent Yes campaign. He told the FT: "If there is a Yes campaign, I will be involved with it."

Mr Clarke said: "Most people are not adding the proviso, depending on what's negotiated. Assuming the constitution resembles or is along the same lines as what we have at the moment, I intend to join an all-party campaign on the issue."

His remarks will be welcomed by Mr Blair, who has come under attack from other pro-Europeans, among them Lord Heseltine, the former Tory minister, for his policy reversal.

Britain in Europe, which had intended to lead the Yes campaign if a referendum was called on joining the euro, is to reorganise itself for the plebiscite on the constitution.

At a board meeting on Wednesday, the group decided to build a broader base of support to contend what would be a purely political debate rather than an economic one. Lucy Powell, campaign director, said: "We'll be looking for new personalities on the board and new spokespeople. We're starting out as underdogs but we're confident that in a fair and balanced debate we can win the arguments . . . "

The working assumption in BiE is there will be little activity in the run-up to a general election but that the campaign will begin in earnest afterwards with a referendum being held within five months.